Grattan on Friday: Sometimes, sexism gets the reward it deserves

The virulence of some of the contemporary sexism against female politicians reflects the unrestraint that characterises the social media age. David Foote/AUSPIC

Four years after her famous “misogyny speech” attacking Tony Abbott, and when an extraordinary American presidential campaign is featuring gender in both a good and a bad way, Julia Gillard reflected this week on her experience as a woman at the top.

Speaking in London at a memorial for Jo Cox, the British MP murdered outside her office at the height of the Brexit campaign, Gillard warned young women contemplating a political career that they would face sexism and misogyny.

She reprised the references to her being childless, the “gender stereotyping” with its attention on her clothes and hair, the “ditch the witch” placards at rallies, the “pornographic cartoons circulated by an eccentric bankrupt”, and the “vile words on social media”.

“Beyond sexism, there are other very real risks that women in public life must face,” Gillard said. “Threats of violence have become more prevalent for women in public life.”

“Threats of violent abuse, of rape, are far too common. A woman in public view may expect to receive them almost daily.”

In the United States gender is obviously front and centre in the struggle for the presidency. As Fairfax correspondent Paul McGeough has written, the campaign “is fast narrowing to a decision about women – about how they are treated by men and about whether one of them is suitable to be president and commander-in-chief”.

We are struck overwhelmingly by the appalling features. But look again, and there are some positives to be found among the muck.

Most obviously, this contest – unless the polling is dramatically out – is headed to giving the most powerful country in the world its first woman president. If elected, Hillary Clinton will join the female leaders of Britain and Germany – Theresa May and Angela Merkel – in a trio of unprecedented female international heft.

In Clinton’s battle for the presidency the repugnant sexism of her opponent has actually worked to her advantage.

Clinton targeted Donald Trump’s sexism in the first debate, including homing in on his calling a beauty contest winner who gained weight “Miss Piggy”. The emergence a week ago of the video in which he brags in the explicit and disgusting terms about his pursuit of women, and subsequent revelations and allegations of atrocious behaviour have led to widespread condemnation, including from fellow Republicans.

Critically, female voters have taken to the political hills.

There would be many factors in a Trump loss but the increasing and intense focus on his sexism would be a major one.

The worst of Trump’s direct sexism has been against women other than Clinton. His labelling of her as “Crooked Hillary” who should be in jail, and innumerable other over-the-top insults, could have been made against a male or female opponent.

As women have gained greater political power, sexism has become more obvious and overtly obnoxious, while also more likely to be called out and condemned by its victims and the community.

Thus the sort of sexism encountered by the first women in Australian federal politics was different in kind from that faced by Gillard. They weren’t critiqued on their figures and their clothes, or referred to as witches. It was the sexism of marginalisation. These women were often regarded mainly as voices for what were dubbed “women’s issues”. The challenges they faced were paternalism and tokenism. It was harder for them to climb the ladder of advancement.

The virulence of some of the contemporary sexism against female politicians reflects the unrestraint that characterises the social media age.

Social media delivers connectedness and many other benefits but it has degraded public discourse, especially in politics. Tony Abbott, always a big target on social media, described it as “kind of like electronic graffiti”.

It is widely documented that women come off worse than men; they are disproportionately victims of the trolls.

Gillard told her audience: “Our community would not consider it acceptable to yell violent, sexually charged abuse at a female politician walking down the street. Why is it OK to let these voices ring so loudly in our online worlds?

"These voices weaken, ridicule, humiliate and terrify. Not only do they challenge the resolve of the women who cop the abuse, but they deter other women from raising their hand to serve in public life. For all the structural barriers to women’s participation in politics, and for all the gender bias and sexism that must be addressed, so too must we challenge and defeat the online abuse.”

Social media abuse desirably needs to be confronted, indeed on behalf of both women and men. But when it comes to the sphere of politics, how do you do that?

In all the debate about the scope and limits of free speech – focused extensively but not exclusively on Section 18C – we don’t hear a great deal about what, if anything, could or should be done about the hate on the internet that blights our political culture.